The effects of ibotenic hippocampal lesions on discriminative fear conditioning to context in mice: impairment or facilitation depending on the associative value of a phasic explicit cue


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    Present address: The Weizmann Institute of Science, Department of Neurobiology, Brain Research Building, 76100 Rehovot, Israel


To what extent the hippocampus is required for contextual conditioning remains a matter of debate. The present experiments examined the effects of ibotenate hippocampal lesions on discriminative fear conditioning to context in mice using measures of freezing in two conditioning paradigms. In both paradigms animals received foot shock as the unconditional stimulus (US) when placed in the (conditioning) context and no foot-shock when placed in the other (neutral) context. In both contexts, animals were presented with a tone as the conditioned stimulus (CS). In the conditioning context there was either no interval (delay condition) or a 30-s interval (trace condition) between tone CS end and shock US onset. These two paradigms were used because theory predicts that in the trace condition animals would learn more about contextual cues as predictors, or not, of shock US occurrence than in the delay condition. In agreement with this, we observed that sham-operated mice learned the context discrimination faster in the trace than in the delay condition. Lesions of the hippocampus significantly retarded, but did not prevent, the acquisition of the context discrimination in the trace condition. In contrast, lesions produced an opposite (facilitatory) effect in the delay condition, which was mainly observed during tone CS presentation. The data suggest that mice used two distinct competing strategies in solving this discrimination task: (i) a strategy relying on the processing of background contextual stimuli allowing direct establishment of context–US associations of different strengths, and (ii) a conditional cue (tone)-based strategy. Hence, hippocampal lesions may impair the use of the former strategy while exacerbating (unmasking) the use of the latter.